Call it a pastiche. Or a Baroque fantasy in two acts. Or the best opera Handel and Vivaldi never wrote.
By any name, "The Enchanted Island," which had its world premiere at the Metropolitan Opera on New Year’s Eve with an all-star cast, is irresistibly entertaining. It’s a light-hearted romp with enough fizz to send a dozen Champagne corks popping, and its only serious drawback is that at 3 1/2 hours it serves up a bit too much of a good thing.
The concoction was the brainchild of Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager who wanted to expand the company’s Baroque repertory in a way that would create a stir and draw in new audiences. So he reinvented a 300-year-old gimmick, the "pasticcio" in which already existing music by several composers was fitted to a new libretto and plot.
Baroque specialist William Christie was engaged to oversee the musical preparation and conduct, and writer/director Jeremy Sams crafted the libretto. It was his clever idea to combine two Shakespeare plots: The quartet of lovers from "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" get shipwrecked on Prospero’s island from "The Tempest;" a major outbreak of mistaken identity ensues, and it takes all manner of magic spells — not to mention intervention by the sea god Neptune — to straighten things out again.
To bring their creation to life on stage, the Met wisely hired Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch to design and direct the production, Kevin Pollard to do the costumes, and a company called 59 Productions to provide animation and projections. Their inspired work on Philip Glass’s "Satyagraha" was on view earlier this season, and they have again done wonders, creating eye-popping magical effects with the humblest of means.
The basic set is a deliberately old-fashioned proscenium frame with Prospero’s book-lined lair on the left and on the right the primeval dwelling of Sycorax, the sorceress whose magic he has usurped. (The mother of the wild Caliban, she is mentioned but does not appear in the Shakespeare play.)
At the rear, a curtain rises for the ocean scenes — starting with a rollicking shipwreck in which the four honeymooning lovers sing of "Days of pleasure, nights of love," (adapted from Handel’s "Semele") only to see their boat capsize in a sudden storm. When Neptune makes his first appearance near the end of Act 1, he does so seated on a clam-shell throne, with mermaids dangling from ropes behind him.
The cast reads like a list of reigning stars in Baroque opera today, from countertenor David Daniels to mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, from soprano Danielle DeNiese to bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni. And let’s not forget the fellow playing Neptune — a certain 70-year-old tenor named Placido Domingo.
DiDonato tears into the role of Sycorax with abandon, rolling on the floor and waving her arms as she plots vengeance against Prospero. But her most effective scene — and the emotional highlight of the evening — is a tender song comforting her son, whose heart has just been broken by one of the shipwrecked women. The music is from a cantata, "Il Pianto di Maria," that was long attributed to Handel but now is credited to the Italian composer Ferrandini.
Part of what makes that scene so moving is the amazing performance by Pisaroni as Caliban. Although he sings up a storm elsewhere in the opera, here, without uttering a word but using facial expression and body movement, he indelibly conveys his character’s grief, anger and finally acceptance.
Daniels has a more difficult challenge as Prospero, frankly the weakest character in Sams’ generally first-rate libretto and one whose moral dilemma never quite clicks. His arias, though sung with fervor, tend to slow things down just when we want them to be fast-forwarded.
No such problem for his attendant sprite Ariel, as portrayed by DeNiese, a live wire whose extroverted showbiz personality perfectly suits the production. She deservedly stops the show with her final aria, a rapid-fire celebration of her newly gained freedom sung to music from Vivaldi’s "Griselda."
As Miranda, Prospero’s lovesick daughter, Lisette Oropesa displays a shining lyric soprano, and her duet ("I have dreamed you" from a Handel cantata) with the Ferdinand of countertenor Anthony Roth Costanza is sublime.
The four honeymooners are all terrific as well: tenor Paul Appleby as Demetrius, soprano Layla Claire as Helena, baritone Elliot Madore as Lysander, and especially mezzo Elizabeth DeShong as Hermia.
Domingo doesn’t have much to sing, but Neptune is the perfect role for him at this late stage of his career. His mere entrance inspires a tangle of emotions — part hilarity, part nostalgia and part awe. Despite his sometimes mangled English, he brings great authority to the part, and that familiar muscular tenor sound still rings out once or twice on sustained high notes.
The Enchanted Island" will play nine more times through Jan. 30. The matinee on Saturday, Jan. 21, will be broadcast on the radio and also shown in HD in movie theaters in the US and around the world.